The Danish police is planning to implement a nationwide automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system over the next couple of years. The Danish newspaper Berlingske obtained the project description for the IT system through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and reported about the ANPR plans.
The ANPR system will consist of mobile units in police cars and handheld devices. The units are designed to automatically register all number plates encountered on the road. The number plates are checked against a pre-compiled hotlist, for example because the vehicle or number plate is reported stolen, or because the owner has skipped a mandatory inspection of the vehicle. If there is a match on the hotlist, the police officers will get a signal from the ANPR device, so that they can decide whether to pursue the vehicle or not.
However, the mobile ANPR units will also store all number plates that are scanned, together with the location. Additionally, the system will store the number plates of all cars that pass the unit since no immediate police action is possible in case of a match on the hotlist.
The Danish police has studied ANPR systems in other European countries, but the United Kingdom is mentioned as the main inspiration for the Danish system. During a test period, a Danish police car equipped with ANPR was able to register about 50,000 cars in a single month, with a “hit rate” on the hotlist of 2%. It is estimated that the ANPR system will allow the police to check 30 times as many number plates compared to the current manual system.
The main privacy concern comes from the location data that is registered for all cars encountered on the road by the ANPR units, whether mobile or stationary. The police will retain that data for 30 days, and the documents from the Berlingske FOIA request show that they intend to use the data actively for investigations and data analysis; there are plans to employ 10-15 data analysts for the latter task. Since the police is the data controller, there is direct “data mining” access to the entire database, without the need for a court order.
The ANPR system will be implemented in all police districts in Denmark, but the project has a particular focus on cross-border crimes, including organised home burglaries. The funding for the ANPR project comes from a political agreement to prioritise police efforts against cross-border crimes. Cars that pass the Danish border with other EU member states are thus more likely to be scanned than other cars, even though there is no border control since Denmark is part of the Schengen Area. Violations of EU cabotage rules (local trucking transports after unloading of the international transport) are also a special priority in Denmark, and scanning number plates at the border has been discussed as one of the initiatives against these violations.
The ANPR data will be shared with the tax authorities and other authorities in Denmark. Their intended use of the data is not clearly indicated in the documents, but the tax authorities have previously tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to get access to the information stored by the telephone companies under the data retention law.
The Danish ANPR system will not be as massive as the one in the UK, but this is mainly for budgetary reasons. The initial budget for ANPR is 4 million euros, so not all police cars will be equipped with ANPR units. The Danish police estimates that “only” 30 million number plates will be scanned and registered every year. Needless to say, this number will increase if more public funds are allocated to the project.
According the documents obtained through the FOIA request by Berlingske, the legal basis for the ANPR project is the Danish video surveillance law (CCTV law) and the Danish Data Protection Act (transposing directive 1995/46/EC). The Danish CCTV law places no direct restrictions on video surveillance in public spaces (such as roads) when done by public authorities, and the police is exempted from the requirement to inform the public through clearly visible signs. Under the Data Protection Act, data processed from video surveillance systems must be deleted no later than 30 days after capture, and the Danish police interprets that as a legal basis for retaining the data for 30 days.
However, even though there are no direct restrictions on video surveillance in public spaces by public authorities, the video surveillance and the subsequent data processing are subject to general requirements of necessity and proportionality. The same principles must apply to ANPR, even though only number plates and not personal faces are registered and processed. Usually, CCTV is employed in areas with an increased risk of criminality, but the ANPR project effectively makes every Danish road an area suitable for CCTV monitoring in order to prevent crime.
The 30-day retention period, and the plans for active data-mining analysis by the police, make it even more questionable whether the ANPR project satisfies the necessity and proportionality requirements. This question must also be viewed in light of the recent judgement on the Data Retention Directive by the European Court of Justice (CJEU). A nationwide ANPR system clearly constitutes mass surveillance, and since the police is the data controller of the ANPR data, there are no judicial safeguards limiting the access to the retained data. The location data from ANPR can be compared to location data collected from mobile telephones.
On 2 June 2014, the Danish government published a legal analysis which said that the Danish data retention law does not violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights because the law has appropriate judicial safeguards for access to the retained data. No such access restrictions exist for the ANPR data. The fact that the Danish ANPR system will be limited (in the beginning) due to budgetary reasons can hardly be regarded as an effective judicial safeguard for this type of mass surveillance.
So far, there has been limited political discussion of the ANPR plans in Denmark, and the privacy implications have not been discussed at all. The documents from the Berlingske FOIA request also outline the PR strategy that the police intends to use for the ANPR project. The police will emphasise that most of the monitoring is done automatically by computers which only “react” when there is a hit. Clearly, the purpose here is to downplay the massive privacy invasion that the ANPR system will impose on Danish (and European) citizens.
Police will check millions of number plates, Berlingske (only in Danish, 21.06.2014)
EDRi-gram: Denmark: Data retention is here to stay despite the CJEU ruling (02.06.2014)
(Contribution by Jesper Lund, EDRi member IT-Pol, Denmark)